On Phil Kessel’s scoring slump versus the Bruins

Here’s a creeping narrative surrounding our Bruins and Leafs series already. It has to do, of course, with Phil Kessel, who has historically struggled against the Boston Bruins and declined to talk to the media today after a gathering of press hounds were waiting 25 minutes for an appearance.

Kessel’s statistics against the Bruins in his career are, well, unflattering to say the least. In 22 games against his former club, he’s scored just three times and is a minus-22. I would not characterize this as a fault of Kessel being unable to step up to the big game, as it has been portrayed twice in various media outlets today.

First there was Michael Traikos of the National Post:

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He will have to [come out and face the media] because like it or not Kessel is the main focus in the opening round series against the Bruins, where fans still chant “Thank you Kessel!” for a trade to Toronto that netted Boston a trio of draft picks that turned into Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton and Jared Knight.

The attention seems to affect Kessel, who has three goals, six assists and is a minus-22 in 22 career games against the Bruins.

And from Anthony Petrelli at Maple Leafs Hot Stove:

this narrative is going to be beaten to death more than it already has been, but that doesn’t mean part of it isn’t true. Simply put, the Bruins have proven they can shut down Kessel; not neutralize Kessel, but flat out shut him down. The series won’t boil down to how many points Kessel ends up with, but how many teams advance without their best player recording a single point? He’s going to have to produce at least a little bit unless Kadri and Lupul go absolutely bonkers and put up points left, right and center.

This is in part true. The Bruins have been able to shut down Phil Kessel like no other team in hockey, but that can partially be put to the fact the Bruins have been able to shut down, well, a tonne of other superstars for the last several years. They’ve had two Vezina-calibre seasons from Tim Thomas and the best shutdown defenceman the league has had in the last five seasons from Zdeno Chara.

These numbers from 2009-2012 show how many goals per 20 minutes Chara gives up, compared to the opponents he faces:

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All Players Goals per 20 min Goals per 82
vs. Chara 0.613 50
Not vs. Chara 0.801 66

Like I noted: stretch those numbers out over 82 games (assuming 20 minutes a night), and a player who would be on the ice for 66 goals a season would be on the ice for just 50 against Chara. He helps cut production for players by 20%, in part because he plays in front of strong goaltending, in part because he’s a great defenceman.

Here how he is cutting down shots on goal at even strength, over the same time period:

All Players Shots per 20 min Shots per 82
vs. Chara 12.762 1046
Not vs. Chara 13.704 1124

So it’s not just the goaltending. Chara cuts down unblocked shot rates by about 7%.

The other thing to note about Chara over the 2009-2012 time period, which I’m using because it indicates the multiple years we have with the data available after the Kessel trade, is that Zdeno Chara matched up against no forward in the NHL more than he has Kessel. Kessel matched up against no defenceman in the NHL more than Chara. Most players stats would look pretty bleak against Chara, in fact, the chart above shows that they definitively are.

The problem you get when analyzing the Bruins against the Maple Leafs is that the Bruins have had a coach who is good at getting the matchups he likes, and who has a dominant top pairing and a dominant two-way centreman in Patrice Bergeron. Those factors, rather than Kessel’s all-time numbers against the Bruins, are more worrying for the Leafs heading into this series.

Again, it’s not the top players who are the issue. It’s the lack of depth. I’m scrolling down players who turn Chara into a 50%-or-worse Corsi defenceman between 2009 and 2012 and it’s not a very deep group:

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  • Alex Ovechkin: 44.7%
  • Mikhail Grabovski: 48.6%
  • Nik Kulemin: 48.8%
  • Nicklas Backstrom: 38.9%
  • Chris Kunitz: 45.7%

Tyler Dellow has written in the past about comparing head-to-head matchups in hockey this way to batter-versus-hitter matchups in Major League Baseball, which have little predictive quality. I’m not going to stress what Kessel, or what Grabovski or Kulemin (interestingly, Kulemin has good split stats against Boston that never seen to be brought up, and he doesn’t talk much to the media either) have done against Chara or not.

The point moreso is that Zdeno Chara shuts down a lot of forwards, and Zdeno Chara also gets to see minutes against Kessel more than anybody else because who else on the Leafs is Claude Julien going to bother matching up against?

Here are the top ten Leafs forwards Chara matched up against this season, sorted by time-on-ice:

  • Phil Kessel: 32:36
  • Tyler Bozak: 31:24
  • James van Riemsdyk: 31:04
  • Nik Kulemin: 22:14
  • Jay McClement: 20:08
  • Mikhail Grabovski: 18:03
  • Nazem Kadri: 13:01
  • Clarke MacArthur: 11:28
  • Ryan Hamilton: 6:49
  • Frazer McLaren: 5:39

Again, it’s almost exclusively the top line that see a lot of Chara, although Randy Carlyle’s checking line ended up on the ice against him a bunch, more than the Kadri line would have.

Petrelli notes that Kadri or Lupul are going to have to go off this series for the Leafs to have anything close to a fighting chance and I predict he’s right. Boston’s biggest weakness (and I’ll get into it more with my series preview tomorrow) is that they lack defensive depth, which is all the more reason for Julien to match his best defenceman up as much as he can against Toronto’s best forward, who is Phil Kessel by virtually every available measure.

But to look at Kessel’s first 22 games against the Bruins and expect to find a common trend? I should note that after Kessel’s first 22 games this season he had 4 goals, 81 shots and a 5.0% shooting rate. 22 games against the Bruins? 3 goals, 71 shots and a 4.2% shooting rate.

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We know what happened in the second part of the year to Kessel. The worry is that the Bruins, unlike the rest of the league, have seemingly found a way to shut down his playmaking ability. A tall order, no doubt.

s/t to Rob Pettapiece

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  • “But to look at Kessel’s first 22 games against the Bruins and expect to find a common trend? I should note that after Kessel’s first 22 games this season he had 4 goals, 81 shots and a 5.0% shooting rate. 22 games against the Bruins? 3 goals, 71 shots and a 4.2% shooting rate.”

    Would be interesting to take 22 random games from Kessel’s time with the Leafs and see how frequently those 22 games come up with stats similar to his 22 games vs the Bruins.

  • Jeez Phil, I am a real fan but Holy Cow, just listen to your OWN interviews!! You even SOUND like a loser so how can you expect to do better! Phil my friend, hope you either cowboy the frig up not just for YOUR SAKE but for YOUR FANS (it’s the CUP!!) or we may have to call your sister to get dressed, and we do NOT want to do that! Go Leafs Go and a better effort expected. You CAN deliver!!